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Vol. 39, No. 2

The rise of the laptop lawyer? Senior members, lonely bowlers, and a way forward

by Stephen P. Gallagher, M.S.O.D.

About eight years ago, I wrote a set of articles for Bar Leader on bar associations in transition. My focus at that time was on how voluntary bar associations throughout the country were struggling to attract and retain young members. Today, I would like to examine how bar associations are handling the new needs, new desires, and new dreams of senior attorneys facing transition from full-time practice.

This group represents a potentially massive exodus of talent leaving the profession—potentially leaving bar membership. Are there services that bar associations can offer to those leaving full-time practice?

Much of what I’ll say applies particularly to voluntary bar associations, as they are under the imperative to remain attractive to members at every career and life stage. My hope, however, is that those at mandatory bars will find some insights they can apply so their members do more than just write that check each year.

Our starting point

In my earlier articles, I referenced the work of political scientist Robert Putnam, particularly his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which he showed that people were moving away from relying on formal participation in large organizations as their way of connecting with society and toward more intimate one-on-one relationships.

Consumers are increasingly becoming self-directed, self-organized, and self-regulated. They are “bowling alone.” In the case of bar members, they avoid meetings and functions. They have little time to develop Putnam’s “social capital.” I suggested in one of those earlier articles that “Bar associations may need to find new service offerings that address members’ increasingly segmented and diverse needs, if they hope to survive these turbulent times.”

What has changed?

Today's lawyers face daunting challenges with the advent of new technologies resulting in increased access to information, standardization of services, and pressure from clients to deliver routine services more cost effectively. The real competition for the solo practitioner, who survived on real estate transactions and family estate work, is now LegalZoom and other one-stop, online, DIY services.  

The Future at Work—Trends and Implications is a study by RAND Corp. for the U.S. Department of Labor. Their researchers sought to answer the question, “What does the future hold for work in the 21st century?” Their research findings are a good starting point, showing that law firms are moving from vertically integrated organizations to more specialized ones that outsource noncore functions, and to more decentralized forms of internal organization.

Law firms are already seeing the shift away from more permanent, lifetime jobs toward less permanent, and even nonstandard employment relationships. Solicitations for off-shore research and drafting services are now commonplace email messages.

A new world for senior lawyers

It is within this context that we must explore what bar associations can do to help senior lawyers who are transitioning themselves away from full-time practice and perhaps toward alternative arrangements. A key challenge and opportunity for bar associations these days is deciding how best to shift resources and focus to assist these “nonstandard employment relationships” through every phase of career and lifelong transition.

Today, many professionals, young and old(er), give very little thought to the idea that the bar association represents their interests, so it is becoming increasingly imperative that bar leaders find out what services their members are actually using, and why they are using them. Identifying these services cannot rely upon anecdotal evidence but must be based upon hard data—dare I say, “large data.”

As part of its Service 2015 strategic planning process, the North Carolina Bar Association Strategic Planning & Emerging Trends Committee conducted a member survey. Here is one of its key findings: “The most valued service that the association provides is still fostering a positive reputation for the profession.”

Elizabeth Derrico, who assisted the committee with its strategic planning through the ABA Division for Bar Services Consulting Services Program, noted that ABA survey data reflects a similar sentiment. Derrico, now associate executive director of strategic member engagement at the New York State Bar Association, explained in her summary that "positive reputation" goes beyond "image" and encompasses professionalism, legislative advocacy, competence, and public service.

The committee's final report indicates that members appeared to be saying, "'[H]elp me serve my clients by keeping me up to date, promoting professionalism and the integrity of the system, and providing me with practice tools'" and "'[H]elp me to practice ethically, responsibly, and efficiently and make the system work.'” The NC Bar’s most valued services, then, will be those that directly serve members.

PMA programs, LAPs may be increasingly important

It is important to understand that no matter what new program or benefit you add, the association no longer “creates” value. The best you can hope to do is establish programs and services that recognize, realize, and actualize the value that already exists in your individual members. If, say, 60 percent of your members are solo practitioners (and many of them seniors), your challenge as a bar leader is to figure out how you can re-establish socially capitalized, one-on-one relationships with these individuals.

In 1990, I joined the NYSBA staff as its first practice management advisor, and one of the first in the country. Today, there are 30 PMA programs throughout North America. These resource centers are open to all members, with a variety of services—most of them free—particularly focused on solo and small-firm practitioners.

Among their services, PMA programs offer one-on-one, confidential advising services—to “help them practice ethically, responsibly, and efficiently.” Given the number of recent graduates unable to find traditional, full-time practice settings, and the increasing longevity and disproportionate size of the baby boom generation now facing transition, bar associations can expect to see expanding needs for PMA services. 

The early 1990s was the same period of time when bar associations were beginning to establish lawyer assistance programs, which provide education and confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students, and immediate family members affected by the problems of substance abuse, stress, depression, or other mental health issues. 

The aging lawyer population will put increasing pressure on bar communities to expand the scope and range of lawyer assistance programs as greater number of self-directed lawyers, judges, law students, and family members seek help with impairments in ability to function as a result of age-related problems.

The NC Bar, for example, offers an intervention program that is aimed at persuading impaired lawyers to retire and assisting them to do so before they commit a disciplinary infraction. You can read more about that in this same issue and in a previous article.

I believe bar associations should be looking to expand support networks to aid all lawyers in navigating life’s transition. I spoke with Jim Calloway, the director of the Management Assistance Program at the Oklahoma Bar Association, who shared his hypothesis about senior lawyers.

Calloway believes that “Many senior lawyers will not quit practicing until they absolutely have to do so. A combination of factors including the economy and simply the desire to stay engaged and involved, he says, will create a huge need ahead to retrain those folks from being “office lawyers” to being “laptop lawyers.”

This is a much larger population than any LAP is equipped to handle with current intervention services, and it may also go beyond what is traditionally offered by PMA programs. Is this a place where LAP and PMA approaches should connect?

How do communities of interest develop?

Bar associations have always used sections and committees to attract and retain members. Sections and committees are forms of “communities of interest”—traditionally, the shared interest that's aimed at bringing members together and forming a community has focused on substantive law areas, with few exceptions.

Today, there is a growing need to expand communities of interest based on changing member needs and concerns. Technology is allowing communities of interest to be interactive places for members to meet online to discuss ideas and build the profession’s body of knowledge. The New York State Bar Association’s General Practice Section listserv is one such community of interest. Nearly 2,000 GP Section members voluntarily receive listserv emails and participate in lawyerly exchanges.

The old bar association luncheon discussions of the last generation have given way to email threads of hundreds of questions and thousands of messages. Mentors and their pupils no longer use the telephone. It is easier to ask your question online and receive a host of answers. Of course, there are always those who might abuse such a setup, but the group regulates itself very effectively. Transaction forms and sample pleadings fly back and forth through the ether. Value is created and added.

I am concerned about what else bar associations could do to bring experienced senior lawyers together with less-experienced young lawyers who are themselves looking to grow a career. Could it be that local and state bar associations need to work together to build regional networks of services to better serve the profession and to empower lawyers young and old(er) to better serve the public? 

What are senior lawyers’ communities of interest?

It is healthy for senior lawyers to stay involved with familiar “communities of interest.” It is equally healthy for senior lawyers to form new communities with diverse groups of individuals who share similar interests. A community of interest around selling a law practice certainly needs a room full of lawyers interested in buying a law practice. Many bar associations seem to be content in forming senior lawyers’ divisions, sections, and committees, because these groupings fit the traditional mold for bar activity. But I wonder what value is generated when the average age of a committee or section is over 70?

I see much greater value in keeping senior lawyers actively involved in every phase of substantive law sections. This is one way of keeping a healthy community. For the short term, I have to agree with Jim Calloway’s suggestions for bar associations to commit greater resources in helping “office lawyers” become “laptop lawyers.” Your senior lawyers will respond well to young lawyers who are self-directed, self-organized, and computer-literate.  

As increasing numbers of senior lawyers explore more flexible roles and work styles, seeking new forms of work assignments suited to their personal experiences and inclinations, bar associations large and small, urban and rural are in a unique position to form a broader range of alliances and communities to better serve individuals’ transitions away from full-time practice, while at the same time providing young people with hope and direction in figuring out how best to serve emerging demands.

This time of massive exodus of talent leaving the profession, while law firms shift away from permanent, lifetime jobs toward less permanent, nonstandard employment relationships creates many opportunities for bar associations that are willing to explore new ways of shaping Putnam’s “social capital.”

Stephen P. Gallagher, M.S.O.D.

Stephen P. Gallagher, master of science in organizational development, is president of, an executive coaching company headquartered in Narberth, Pa. Stephen concentrates his practice on transition/succession planning for lawyers. This article was prepared with cooperation and support from Leonard E. Sienko Jr., a lifelong friend and a sole practitioner at The Sienko Law Office in Hancock, N.Y. In Gallagher’s own transition from full-time practice, he spends time teaching several marketing classes at St. Joseph’s University, and he commits more of his time to his three grandchildren. He can be reached via e-mail and welcomes your comments and questions.